Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

Downsized Living

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Escaping the city, a writer finds contentment in a small town

By Bruce Falconer | September 3, 2019
Flickr/infomastern
Flickr/infomastern

If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie by Christopher Ingraham; Harper, 288 pp., $24.99

The dream of relocating to the countryside in search of a slower-paced, more meaningful life has a proud literary tradition. Consider Thoreau’s Walden, Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But if the impulse isn’t new, neither are the cautions against seeking its fulfillment. “You people there in the capital are interested in the provinces solely from a poetic viewpoint, that is to say, the picturesque,” a rural administrator tells a wealthly Muscovite in Anton Chekhov’s 1895 novella Three Years, “but I assure you, my friend, there is nothing in the least poetic here—there is barbarism, vulgarity, and meanness, nothing more.” Such a warning, applied to our own day, carries an ominous resonance for anyone unnerved by the sight of a red MAGA hat. Americans today find themselves divided along any number of lines, but perhaps the oldest and most intractable is that which separates those of us who live in cities or suburbs from those who don’t.

One August morning in 2015, Christopher Ingraham, a data journalist at The Washington Post, dashed off a piece that, let’s just say, did nothing to bridge the gap. In the late 1990s, USDA statisticians put together a “natural amenities scale” that ranked all 3,108 counties in the continental United States based on environmental factors known to affect quality of life, such as average sunlight, temperature, topography, and proximity to water. Dead last on the list was Red Lake County, Minnesota—dark and bitingly cold in the winter, relentlessly flat, and despite its name, nowhere near a lake. Having reviewed the findings, Ingraham posted a tongue-in-cheek story anointing Red Lake County “the absolute worst place to live in America.” Within minutes, his inbox began filling with messages from outraged Red Lake residents, calling him out for disparaging their county sight unseen. One of them invited Ingraham to visit, and thinking it would make a humorous follow-up piece, he did. The result is If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now—an account of how he and his family fled the crowded, expensive, traffic-choked Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., for the spacious skies and not-so-fruited plain of rural, northern Minnesota. The book is essential reading for anyone, present company included, who has fantasized about leaving the city behind and starting over on a smaller scale.

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